Behind Latin America’s protests, a fading faith in democracy

Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters
A demonstrator is detained by members of the security forces during a protest against Chile's government, in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 27, 2019.
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Not long ago, nearly all Latin American nations were living under dictatorship. But by the 1990s, the numbers had flipped – with mano dura replaced with democracy everywhere from Argentina to Guatemala. 

But as this fall’s slew of protests illustrates, many citizens feel that the promise of democracy hasn’t gone according to plan.

Why We Wrote This

Around the globe, people are questioning their hopes and assumptions for government in ways not seen in decades. In Latin America, this fall’s wave of protests exposes a deep and growing discontent with democracy.

The commodities boom of the 2000s helped many nations reduce poverty and inequality in one of the world’s most unequal regions. But over the past several years, economies have sputtered, crime and violence have ticked up, and corruption scandals have cast a pall over earlier optimism. Today’s protests in each country – Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, to name a few – have different catalysts, but many reflect a growing disenchantment with democracy, analysts say. 

Support for democracy is at an all-time low in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the latest AmericasBarometer regional report. Satisfaction with how democracy works has also fallen to just shy of 40%.

Now, how leaders respond could determine the region’s path forward. 

“Democracy comes and goes in waves,” says Elizabeth Zechmeister, a Vanderbilt University professor who directed the study. “But then, should we be alarmed? Yes. Because these periods of democratic recession have led to a lot of hardship.”

Drums pound in a crowded plaza in downtown Santiago, Chile. The so-called front line of protesters standing between the demonstrations and the national police on a recent afternoon don bike helmets and handmade shields with the names of some of their almost 30 fallen peers. “The people, the people, where are the people?” they chant.

“The people are in the streets demanding dignity!” the crowd responds.

But it’s not just Chileans in the streets asking for respect – and safety, and economic security, and quality public services – from their governments. Latin America rounded out the past decade with months of large-scale public protests. The tipping points for citizen discontent run the gamut, from a small increase in train fare in conservative Chile to suspicious election results in leftist Bolivia and fuel hikes in centrist Ecuador. Protesters have taken to the streets from Peru to Haiti, and from Colombia to Mexico demanding better health care and public education, and an end to corruption and rising murder rates. 

Why We Wrote This

Around the globe, people are questioning their hopes and assumptions for government in ways not seen in decades. In Latin America, this fall’s wave of protests exposes a deep and growing discontent with democracy.

Regardless of diverse political leanings, the region seems to be in agreement over one thing: Their satisfaction with democracy is on the decline.

It wasn’t long ago that nearly all Latin American nations were living under a dictatorship. But by the 1990s, the numbers had essentially flipped, replacing mano dura governance with democratic leadership and institutions everywhere from Argentina to Nicaragua, and from Chile to Guatemala. Democracy promised citizens more equality and economic opportunity, less violence and oppression. The commodities boom that bolstered many regional economies during the 2000s helped nations deliver on many of these promises, reducing poverty and slowly shrinking inequality in one of the most unequal regions in the world. But over the past several years, economies have sputtered, crime and violence have ticked up, and high-profile corruption scandals have hit nearly every nation, casting a pall over earlier optimism.

“Democracy has been failing to deliver on its promise,” says Elizabeth Zechmiester, who directs the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University, which has tracked trends in democracy and public satisfaction in the region since 2004. “People feel less safe, more economically vulnerable, and that governments aren’t doing enough to respond to their basic needs.” 

Some see the fire hose of protests flooding Latin America as a sign of democratic health: Citizens are taking their leaders to task. It’s in line with protests and growing discontent with the status quo worldwide. But some worry that the frustration and lackluster responses from government officials, paired with dimming views of democracy, may further open the door to authoritarianism. How leaders respond to citizen dissatisfaction could be the true determinant of the region’s path forward, observers say.

“Democracy comes and goes in waves,” says Dr. Zechmeister. “The fact that we’re in a democracy recession right now is not entirely unique ... when we take a broad look at modern political history,” she says.

“But then, should we be alarmed? Yes. Because these periods of democratic recession have led to a lot of hardship. ... This takes a toll on quality of life and basic liberties.”

“Brewing discontentment”

Support for democracy is at an all-time low in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the 2018-19 LAPOP AmericasBarometer regional report, based on more than 31,000 interviews in 20 countries in the region. Support for democracy as the best form of government is particularly low in places like Honduras (45%) and Guatemala (48.9%), where leaders have blatantly disregarded democratic institutions like electoral processes and anti-corruption bodies in recent years. Satisfaction with democracy, which measures the sense of how well it is working, is also falling across the region. Satisfaction has gone from nearly 60% on average in 2010 to just shy of 40% across Latin America today.

“There’s a brewing discontentment and disillusionment with democracy in the abstract and how it is functioning in practice,” says Dr. Zechmeister.

Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters
People gather to honor Dilan Cruz, a teenage demonstrator who died after being injured by a tear gas canister during an initial strike, in Bogotá, Colombia, Dec. 23, 2019.

That has to do with a number of factors that fall into three central categories: clean government, physical security, and economic well-being. Data in each has been “trending in a negative direction over the past five or so years,” Dr. Zechmeister says.

Corruption scandals have swept Latin America, dampening citizen faith in democracy. Brazil’s so-called Car Wash scandal implicated scores of politicians and more than one former president. The Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht allegedly bribed officials across the region, including in Colombia and Mexico. Four former presidents are under investigation for corruption in Peru, where the current leader dissolved an intractable Congress last fall, something opposition lawmakers likened to a legislative coup. (The AmericasBarometer report found an increased tolerance for dissolving legislatures in times of crisis in the region, as well.) Some 53% of Latin Americans feel corruption has gotten worse in their countries over the past year, according to Transparency International’s 2019 Global Corruption Barometer.

Crime and violence are also on the upswing, creating a sense that governments aren’t doing enough to keep citizens safe. Out of the 20 countries with the highest homicide rates in the world, 17 are in Latin America, according to a 2018 report by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.

“If I’m not safe taking [public] transportation and walking home from work at night, that’s definitely the government’s fault,” says Ana Regina Fernandez, a medical resident recharging her transportation card in Mexico City on a recent afternoon. Although she didn’t participate, she supported large-scale protests in the capital last year demanding that the government work to find solutions to high levels of violence in Mexico – particularly violence against women.

But it’s perhaps the region’s economy that has put the biggest dent in citizen faith in democracy, experts say. Following Latin America’s commodity boom, when tens of thousands of people moved out of poverty, growth started to stagnate. By 2014, South America had just over 0.5% average growth, posing a threat to the newly minted middle classes and the promise of upward mobility.

Poster child protests

The anxiety around possibly backtracking into poverty, or not gaining the education and formal employment long heralded by regional governments and multinational bodies, came into full relief last fall in Chile. The government proposed a roughly 4% fare hike for the capital’s metro, which sparked widespread protests. It was less than 5 U.S. cents, but a significant bump for low-income families that already spend almost 24% of their income on transportation. 

Marcela Pérez has been protesting since October in Santiago’s Plaza de Italia – which protesters (and Google Maps) have redubbed Plaza de la Dignidad. “Our legislators have become deaf,” says the single mother, who works in higher education. “We can’t have people legislating who don’t know how much the metro costs at rush hour or the price of a loaf of bread.”

For years, Chile has been Latin America’s poster child of stability and prosperity. Yet it is the most unequal country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 36 mostly developed economies, and has an income gap roughly 65% higher than the OECD average.

Ms. Pérez grew up in one of the poorest parts of Santiago and had a son when she was 17 years old. She recalls having it hammered into her, by her family and the government, that the only way to get ahead was to study. So she did  – and she picked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt along the way, with few job prospects that could help her chip away at it. Now her son is about to enter college. “How am I going to pay?” she asks. “I have no idea. [The government] created a process of eternal debt.”

After initially resisting protesters’ demands, and declaring that Chile was “at war against a powerful enemy,” President Sebastian Piñera rolled back the fare hikes, and promised to cut electricity costs and slightly increase the minimum wage and minimum pensions.

But the price hikes were simply a tipping point – as in many protests in the region. As protesters flooded out to demand more from their government, its early, forceful response drummed up memories of dictatorship-era repression. As protesters continued to turn out, they brought the very backbone of Chile’s government – its constitution – back into the spotlight. 

Chile’s Constitution, approved in 1980, prioritizes then-dictator Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal economic agenda over the guarantee of public services like access to water or health care, critics say. Many protesters demand it be replaced, pointing to the symbolic heft of its creation during Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship. And despite amendments to the document over the years, many argue its legal framework remains conservative, allowing few formal channels for the public to participate in political decision-making. It requires at least two-thirds approval by Congress to make any changes, a high bar.

In November, the government agreed to hold a referendum in April on whether to draft a new constitution. Fernando Atria, a constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Chile, has been a key voice in helping Chileans understand what that might mean. He’s come out to citizen-organized neighborhood gatherings – met by cheers and applause – to explain how he views the current constitution as working against the people. 

“Originally its purpose was to protect the political and economic model of the dictatorship, so that the coming democracy couldn’t reverse” systems the dictatorship put into place, Mr. Atria says. “The purpose was to configure a power that couldn’t make transformative decisions, and 30 years later we can see a policy that’s still marked by these characteristics.” 

Despite the struggles in Chile, outside observers say its government has taken important, if belated, steps in trying to engage protesters and listen to their demands.

In Colombia, where protests started in November following large-scale demonstrations elsewhere in the region, the government has failed to learn from the Chilean situation, says Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy.

Seeing neighboring protests’ success helped Colombia’s demonstrations gain traction, but the country’s peace accords may have played a key role, too. For decades the government was unable to deliver on expected public services because it was at war with the FARC guerrilla movement, he says. Many Colombians feel they’ve been patient for so long, but with a peace deal signed and in effect, “there are no excuses not to meet your end of the bargain.”

Over 75% of Colombians believe more than half of the nation’s politicians, if not all, are corrupt, according to the AmericasBarometer report. Yet the government, already unpopular, doesn’t “seem to recognize the protesters as players with legitimate issues that need addressing,” says Mr. Guzmán. It could lead to more estrangement and protests in 2020. “That’s not in the government’s best interest.”

Release valve ahead?

In Bolivia, the protests feel distinct from the rest of the region. What began as an uprising of citizens concerned that the longest-serving president in Latin America, Evo Morales, was gaming the system to stay in power – arguably a citizen fight to preserve democracy – has become far less clear-cut. Some protesters are now calling for the former leader’s return from exile in Argentina. Others are concerned the interim government is dead set on overturning any remnant of the Morales government, such as more inclusion for the nation’s indigenous population.

Marco Bello/Reuters
A supporter of former Bolivian President Evo Morales waves a Wiphala flag, an emblem of some indigenous Andean communities, during a protest in La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 21, 2019.

Democracy – and its unmet promises – are still at the core, observers say. 

In late November, nearly a month after thousands of Bolivians joined pro-democracy protests that led to the ousting of President Morales, thousands more turned out in cities like Sacaba to demand his return.

Mario Olmos, a father of three who did not participate in early protests for or against Mr. Morales, decided to protest after at least nine civilians were killed there during clashes with government forces.

“We raised up against [the] injustice between classes,” he says, navigating the rubble and burnt tires that cover the streets in the wake of the unrest.

During the protests against Mr. Morales, government forces didn’t respond to protests as harshly, he says, lifting up a string of barbed wire so he could carry his daughter beyond the protest zone. They “let the rich do whatever they want, and they treat us, the poor people, badly.”

Elections scheduled for May could be a release valve for some of the pressure building up over recent months. And in countries where elections went smoothly in recent years, support for democracy tended to increase, according to AmericasBarometer. That includes places such as Mexico and Brazil, where unpopular incumbents were voted out of office by populist-style leaders of vastly different political leanings.

But a winning vote alone may not be enough to buoy support for democracy. One worrying trend in the region is the attitude of young voters, who are particularly disenchanted with democracy, according to a 2017 United Nations report. LAPOP data found similar results. “For the first generation born and raised in democracy, the gap between expectations ... and actual socio-economic outcomes widened the distance between societies and their governments,” the report reads. Some 36% of Latin American youth say they have confidence in the transparency of election results, according to U.N. data, versus the OECD average of 62%.

How their leaders listen or react to their frustrations could determine the next chapter of regional protests, analysts say.

Governments “engaging these movements early on and reaching compromise” could defuse tensions, says Mr. Guzmán. “But in practice we’re seeing less compromise, less willingness to engage with protesters to create a society that’s genuinely better for all.”

Gabriela García contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile. Erika Piñeros contributed reporting from Sacaba, Bolivia.

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